Roman Wall Blues was written to be performed as part of W.H. Auden’s radio play, Hadrian’s Wall, which was aired from Newcastle on 25 November 1937. The original broadcast, like much live radio at the time, does not survive, but the script does: It is a delightfully and unashamedly educational play about the history of the wall, framed by the device of a family’s day trip to the fort at Housesteads. The broadcast went, reported Britten in his diary entry for the day, “fearfully badly”. But, he added: “There’s good stuff in it I know.” The critic of the Listener agreed, admiring the “terrific vitality” of the music. She also noted – the broadcast was of course live – “an uncomfortable pause during which an actor was told in several very audible whispers to turn to page three”.
Britten’s music was thought lost, until 2005, when a handwritten copy of the vocal line turned up in the possession of a 99-year-old former employee of the Bank of England, who had been part of the local choir brought in to sing it. In the end, the choir wasn’t used for Roman Wall Blues – at the last minute, a crooner from a Newcastle dance hall, whose voice was felt to be more appropriate to the material, was roped in. The music is very bluesy indeed: mournful, bitter-sweet, with shades of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So (Porgy and Bess hadn’t yet had its British premiere, but Britten may have heard some of the songs on a 1935 RCA Victor recording). Composer Colin Matthews, who was Britten’s assistant in the 1970s, has completed a piano accompaniment to the song
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NMC Recordings is a British recording label which specialises in recording works by living British composers. Quaintly, NMC stands for “New Music Cassettes”, which refers to the intended main means of packaging its recordings at the time. Its catalogue reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary British composers.
Guitarists should be acquainted with Antonis Hatzinikolaou’s adventurous recording project on this label, Music of Memory featuring Nicholas Maw’s massive work of the same name and music by Fricker, Northcott, Taylor, Bray and McCabe – names to conjure with!
Of course, this year is the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and we should expect to hear more from the recording labels.
Guitarists will no doubt be playing the Nocturnal and Songs from the Chinese (e.g. Xuefei’s Britten Songs), and guitar groups, eager to join in the fray will be airing the Simple Symphony and Dances from Gloriana (e.g. NYGE at West Dean and Vida Quartet, who have been assiduously practising Simple Symphony in my shed!)